“One must always keep the tools of statecraft sharp and ready. Power and fear – sharp and ready.”
– Frank Herbert, Dune
Struggling noble houses are a fantasy trope, so you want to create a few for your fantasy story, as one does. Who wouldn’t?
Back in the day, before winter came, there was Dune. Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and David Lynch’s masterpiece movie adaption (1984), are milestones for intrigue and politics in speculative fiction and grand examples of world building. Fast forward 31 years to 1996, when winter finally came, we have the release of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, a book that needs no further comments from me. Between these two books, you have a blueprint for using warring noble houses in your story.
First, let’s put on airs, what is the trappings of a noble house:
- The Domain.
- Heraldry, Uniforms, Colors, and Words.
- Servants and Armies.
- The Divine Right.
Second, what is the heart of the story:
- Dark Deeds and Dark Secrets: Ten Noble Motivators.
- The Great Game: Ten Story Hooks for the Noble House.
Finally, three templates for three stories of wars, secrets, and betrayals:
- The War of Succession
- The Tales of the Crumbling Empire
- The War of the Free Cities
Putting On Airs: The Nuts and Bolts of a Noble House
What are the trappings of a noble house?
“I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Nobility origin in wealth and power derived from land, whether we are talking about planet Caladan, Winterfell, or Minas Tirith.
Make sure your noble houses’ domains are distinct and recognizable. The domain is the noble house’s source of power, and for the nobles to be worthy adversaries, their domains must reflect that.
Identify the domains key resources and sources of income, and the size of its population. A noble house cannot wage war unless it has gold and a population to spend.
Heraldry, Uniforms, Colors, and Words
Each noble house should have recognizable heraldic symbols, uniforms, tokens of rulership or regalia, and mottos or certain words they use to create an identity, rally troops and intimidate enemies.
House Atreides uses the colors black and green and has the red hawk as a symbol. House Stark uses the dire wolf as a symbol and uses the words “winter is coming” to focus and prepare for what’s coming. The royal standard of Gondor is the White Tree of Gondor.
You say something about your noble houses if you get these right. Why are the Starks preparing and expecting the worst? What is the meaning of the hawk? Why a white tree?
Servants and Armies
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Noble Houses need henchmen, soldiers, and servants to function. The noble houses also have other members of the household – like servants, squires, and ladies-in-waiting – in addition to the family. Together they add texture and propel the story forward. Heroes have trusty henchmen, companions, mentors, and friends in the household. Villains need minions to spend.
Grima “Wormtongue,” Gurney Halleck of House Atreids, or Vayon Poole of House Stark played key roles in portraying their masters. “Littlefinger” and the Spider was important to the rule of House Baratheon, and possibly partially responsible for King Robert’s fate.
What are the key roles at court?
- The Steward, Regent, or Viceroy has the authority to rule in the monarch’s place.
- The Chamberlain or Seneschal makes decisions for the royal household in the monarch’s absence.
- The Sage is an expert on history and all kinds of lore. The sage may double as a tutor, herald, and court mage.
- The Herald is an expert on nobles, heraldry, and etiquette.
- The Spymaster keeps everybody informed about the state of the realm and any threats.
- The Master Assassin deal with threats in the most permanent fashion.
- The Royal Quartermaster oversees the funding and the gear of the agents, including poisons and magic items.
- The Horsemaster oversees and tends to the domain’s horses.
- The Treasurer oversees the domain’s finances and sometimes literally its gold reserves.
- The Court Mage has access to knowledge and cosmic powers none others understand, and may the critical on the battlefield.
- The High Priest or Chaplain are the religious leaders of the noble household.
- The General is the highest military commander.
- The Castellan oversees the defense of a stronghold.
- The Marshall oversees the training of the troops.
- A Warden oversees a specific area of the domain, like a forest or a village.
- A Guard Captain is the commander of the house guard.
- The Knights are soldiers, often cavalrymen, with noble rank.
- The Ladies-in-waiting are noble daughters who act as servants for the Royals while they look for husbands.
- The Squires are knights-in-training who work as servants of knights.
Why All This Detail?
Storytellers have two significant concerns when using servants and henchmen in a story: purpose and motivation.
The supporting character must serve a purpose to both the protagonist and the story. Serving the protagonist means being part of the protagonist’s power, literal or by default. Serving the story means being a catalyst for change. Stories are about conflict and change, and a vital support cast character is at the center.
The supporting cast needs motivation, like any other character in the story. Why does the supporting cast choose to serve the protagonist? The answer is to ask questions about the supporting character to explore their background and motivation.
Details are essential because any entourage of servants must have its fair share of enemy spies, betrayers, and other weak links. The key is to figure out why. Only an adequately motivated supporting character can betray the protagonist in a meaningful manner.
The Divine Right
There is a religious side to nobility as well.
First, there is the idea of a divine right to rule:
The right of a sovereign to rule as set forth by the theory of government that holds that a monarch receives the right to rule directly from God and not from the people.
Imagine what does a divine mandate does to a person’s judgment. The idea that you cannot make a mistake. You will always be forgiven, and you were put in your place for a reason. Mistakes are explained with “God moves in mysterious ways” and ultimately be pinned on the almighty. Regardless of what you do, you fulfill your purpose and God’s divine plan and ultimately cannot be held responsible.
Second, religion is a convenient way of disposing of excess heirs. There is the idea that any noble family needs an heir to continue the family line and a spare should something happen to the firstborn, hence the phrase “heir and the spare,” in the order of succession.
Both clearly need to learn etiquette, history, intrigue, and warfare.
So, where does that leave the third child? The poor third child may actually redundant in the great game of noble houses unless the house plans on losing, or any new alliances can make up for the dowry, but both may be risky investments.
A safer bet would be the third heir to a powerful institution, like a church. A church’s power does not rely on blood but instead charisma and faith, and a thriving church should be in a position of wealth. As a bonus, if the church requires a vow of celibacy, the cleric heir is unlikely to produce legitimate heirs to challenge later successions.
The Great Game: Noble Houses in Your World
Feuds, history, power, and familiarity are great building blocks for dark and personal stories. It is time to get to the heart of the matter. What can possibly the worse than a wealthy and powerful family?
Noble houses have the same agendas as individuals, and you as the storyteller should ask the same questions about your noble houses as you do for individual characters: what do they want, and what are their problems?
The answer is more complicated for a group than individuals. Groups and organizations are multifaceted, inconsistent, and often contradictory.
Noble houses have histories and traditions. When you map these out, preferably in tandem with rival houses, you will be surprised as you add details.
So what do the noble houses want? Whatever your plot needs. Power, peace, justice, revenge, or prosperity. It is time to delve into the darkness.
Dark Deeds and Dark Secrets: Ten Noble Motivators
Nobles focus only on the noblest of causes. Ten reasons to motivate a noble character.
Heirloom. Family heirlooms are potent symbols for history and add gravitas to a family’s claim to power. Examples include the sword of the conqueror of the past, earthly remains predecessors, letters and ledgers, and gifts from other people of importance. Heirlooms are essential parts of the family’s power base, so protecting and reclaiming any lost heirlooms is a priority.
The Bastard Child. Old families have large and complex family trees, with the added complexity of intermarriage with other families of importance. Ever so often, there are children born out of wedlock, further complicating family relations and succession. A bastard child is both a potential rival and a convenient spare to the noble house, can be used by both the house and its rivals.
What happens when a bastard child has greater potential or qualifications than the legal heir? It will surely complicate matters.
Land Rights. Controlling a large domain means bragging rights, income, and prestige. Protecting and increasing the land become the heart of what the family is about. Reclaiming any lost land becomes a point of pride. Losing land is an insult, in addition to the financial consequences.
Nationalism. Power and love for one’s homeland is a potent mix that easily leads to a sense of superiority and bigotry. Privilege, inherited power, and strong roots quickly lead to the belief that one is better. Loving one’s country and believing your country is superior is not the same thing but is easily related. A strong nation means power to the noble house. Nationalism is also a powerful tool of swaying the masses, instilling the belief that you can feel better by putting down others.
Idealism. Every now and then, someone who believes in something higher and better than themselves comes along. Some even have lofty ideals, virtues, and want to do good. These dangerous individuals, often the black sheep of their families, are difficult to manipulate and control. They are potent allies because they do not falter, but they are also dangerous because they rarely change course later. The noble house becomes part of an inescapable idealist crusade.
Revenge. With power and history comes old slights and rivalries, and there is always something to avenge when you think of it. Why? Honor, and the perceived weakness of forgiveness. Anyone who flinches for just a moment is weak and invites attacks, so noble houses always pay back past slights tenfold.
Debts. Some families always pay their debts while others never do. Lending money to anyone with a god-given right to rule is precarious, to say the least. Some nobles may have dept they are unable to pay, while others hold their debtors thrall. This can lead to all kinds of trouble, also see revenge above.
Religion. For some, faith is real and not just an excuse. The believers serve something greater, perhaps a purpose, and their god-given right to rule. A vengeful and punishing god to motive. A generous and benevolent to forgive when hard choices had to made. Hope to the downtrodden, so they keep in line and accept their lot.
Fear. Wealth and power mean the house has a lot to lose, and the position must be jealously guarded, or someone will surely swoop in and oust the family from its position. Real or imagined, this fear of newcomers and rivals, is a strong motivator and gives the incentive to strike first. Why wait for the inevitable when you can root out your enemies early?
Love. Love is a powerful motivator, and forbidden love is perhaps more so. The things Jamie Lannister did for love caused all kinds of trouble, while Romeo and Juliet’s love could have made peace between their houses.
The Great Game: Ten Story Hooks for the Noble House
Ten reasons keep the adventure rolling.
- Rescue Mission. A family member is missing on enemy territory and requires a rescue effort. The circumstances and opposition are both unclear, and the agents need both tact and considerable power.
- A Bastard. Some claim a family member was born out of wedlock. This will upset the succession and be a diplomatic problem, if true. There is also the possibility of the conception being an assault, which cannot go unanswered.
- The Bad Seed. A rival family is struggling with homicidal tendencies in one of their scions. The young man or woman is dangerous, uncontrollable, and likely to escalate. The noble has a choice to make: do they attempt to defuse or escalate the situation, and what are the gains?
- New Pawns. Rival houses are aiding the enemies, adding them to their list of assets, and the question is, what is the appropriate response. Adding more servants of our own? Attacking the enemy pawns, or do the house strike directly at the heart of the rivals?
- A Murder in the Past. Rumors of the death of a family member or servant actually were murdered by a rival house. A loved family member or a trusted servant who passed under normal circumstances was actually murdered. This raises the question if there is evidence, and what is the appropriate response.
- Forbidden Love. There are rumors of an unsanctioned sexual affair between a family member and a member of a rival house. Not necessarily a problem in itself, normally such liaisons are for gain or the diversion, but the young couple appears to love each other. The implication of such a crisis is incalculable and demands a proper response. But what would that be?
- Missing Documents. An important fence and information broker has offered family records for sale on the black market. Letters, copies of ledgers, old treaties. The potential damage is hard to assess, and there is always the chance of additional copies, even if the family won the bid.
- Brewing Hostilities. A rival house is preparing a strike at one of their enemies, and a response is required. Who gets support? Inaction will reflect on the family, so the family is involved regardless of their actions.
- Religious Upheaval. The land experiences a religious awakening, including among our servants and among our enemies. This new cult must be investigated, and a proper response is needed. Religious fervor is dangerous, and swift and precise action is needed.
- A Change of Heart. One of the family elders have regrets and intend to make amends for past “necessary steps.” This will reflect poorly on the family and come at a considerable cost. The question is if this is acceptable or must be dealt with in some way?
Three Stories of Wars, Secrets, and Betrayal
Dark secrets are dangerous, and even the most insignificant bit of bad news can trigger large conflicts.
Here are three simple outlines in three acts, stories of nobles tearing the land asunder. Each scenario makes different assumptions regarding the state of the setting, but all end in a horrifying struggle of noble houses and plenty of adventure opportunities.
The War of Succession
A once strong nation plunge into a war of succession is three acts as the weak monarch dies, and there are several possible successors.
First Act: The Death of the Monarch
The line of succession has worried the nobles and heralds of the realm for years, and everybody sense weakness and smell blood when the monarch’s health seems to be failing. Bandits roam the countryside. Several nobles fall on an assassin’s blade. The monarch’s Inner Council seems to be falling apart, and the Great Houses muster new armies.
It is a time of opportunity as mercenaries, assassins and mages are in high demand. Simple guards get raises. Burglaries, raids, and espionage pay better than ever.
The monarch dies at the end of the act, and there are rumors of foul play. The commoners blame a little-loved relative of the king. The Inner Council cease to speak to each other, and unidentified assassins attacked one councilor in the throne room, and the outcome is uncertain. The Great Houses each favor their candidates. The realm is at war.
Second Act: The Civil War
The Great Kingdom now has several monarchs, each with varying claims on the throne. The surviving Inner Council members arelikely to remain in the capital with its resources, but the other rulers establish their councils as their services are required. The land suffers a series of significant battles settling the fate of the realm. Pillaging, abuse, plague, and starvation following in its wake.
The Swords of the Crown are busy across the land doing their bloody work. Other, more heroic figures, apparently trying to salvage whatever remaining decency. Skilled warriors, mages, and rogues rise to power as they decide the fates of the Great Houses, and grow into positions as generals, champions, spymasters, court mages and master thieves.
The kingdom’s darkest hour is when the number of contenders of the throne has dwindled down to just a couple, and one final battle remains. It is the decisive moment, and the battle is the worst one yet. It is truly horrible, and everything seems lost.
Third Act: A New Monarch
The surviving factions scurry for power, and again influential individuals decide the outcomes as heroes and villains are tracked down, cornered, and face justice. Archenemies finally settle their score and account for old misdeeds. They reveal the last darkest secrets, and the enemies face-off in one final battle, now on a personal level.
A new monarch, the last contender standing, emerges in the end. The realm is at peace again. For now.
The Tales of the Crumbling Empire
The crumbling empire descends into civil as a strong region decides it has had it with the decaying central government.
First Act: Provincial Concerns
The once Great Empire has decayed for decades, perhaps centuries even, and the breaking point is creeping up it. Power is moving from the central government to the regional cities, and many regions feel they would do a better job on their own. The Great Houses had an only marginal presence at the Imperial Court and moved their interests to their lands long ago.
It has become difficult to collect taxes. The borders and roads are no longer secure. Shadows appear in the woods, and there are rumors of soldiers moving in the wilds. Malcontent and rivalry flourish as fear of the Imperial Throne wanes.
The final spark can be something small and simple. A land dispute, The assassination of a minor noble, or religious persecution. The conflict spiral quickly out of control as troops clash on the borders, and refugees appear from supposedly peaceful provinces.
Second Act: The Empire Fractures
Some event pushes the provinces over the edge. Perhaps an assassination or religious upheaval, or a young noble unwittingly insulted the wrong person. It does not matter, all that matters is that the war everybody yearned for finally is here, the suffering commoners be damned, and regions muster their armies, and the nobles can settle old scores.
The noble houses launch a series of attacks on each other and enemy strongholds. Alliances will shift and unveil secret agreements. Assassins, thieves, sellswords, freelance mages, and renegade priests will all find plenty of work, and their salaries skyrocket.
It is time for desperate measures as well. Infernal pacts, bargains with dragons, summoning the dead, and bonding with vampire covens all become viable options as the struggle picks up momentum. It is a time when only the strongest, brightest, and most treacherous will prevail.
Only a few houses remain in the game as the final battle of the second act draws nearer, and the outcome sets the stage for the third and final act.
Third Act: The New Order
Only a handful of houses remain in the game after the initial series of battles, raids, and assassination, and the final battle looms ahead. The stakes are the same, one mistake is likely to doom the noble family, but the consequences are higher. Now the empire is in the balance.
The decisive moment is when the houses play their last dark secrets. Foreign sellswords arrive. One of the dragons switches allegiance. An assassin gets to one of the leaders, sidelining a faction. A demon lord appears on the battlefield.
One Great House remains in the end, possibly with new vassals, and face opportunity and hard choices. Do they move forward and claim independence, or is the Imperial Throne next? Is this a new chapter for the empire, or the end?
The War of the Free Cities
The Principalities, or League of Free Cities, has grown arrogant and powerful, and its leaders greedy. The alliance’s original purpose seems forgotten, and peace and prosperity have become a curse.
First Act: The Shadow of Malcontent
The power between the cities suddenly shifts or spurs one of the cities to act. Maybe a dark secret is out behind closed doors. Perhaps the dynastic intermarriages finally have given a faction a decisive upper hand.
Regardless of its reasons, one of the cities suddenly attacks one of the other cities, claiming self-defense and the desire for justice after sudden and unexplained deaths.
Second Act: The Cities at War
The other cities are at a loss and are forced to pick sides, although this may have had a long time coming. Those reluctant are forced into action by more assassinations and the threat of losses by indecision. It is better to be better to act wrongly than not to act at all. The Great Houses must pick their alliances carefully, especially those with interests in several cities.
Third Act: The Founding of a Kingdom
A handful of factions appears to be the victors as the cities and lesser houses fall, and in the end, only a few remain. The Free Cities now belongs to the best general or the best diplomat, anyone who can unite a couple of factions, by force or guile, become a leader, and the Free Cities have become a kingdom once the losing side sees the futility of resistance.
Hail to the Monarch!
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The Reading List
Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert is the story about the two feuding noble houses fighting over the desert planet Dune and the precious spice Melange. Dune is a masterwork. It even says so on the cover.
Daughter of the Empire by Janny Wurst and Raymond E. Feist (1988) is a spin-off from Feist’s Magician (1982), where a young woman finds herself in charge of a noble house in a sprawling empire. Rereading the Magician a few years back was a mixed experience, but both books keep getting good reviews.
Michael J. Sullivan Ryiera Revelations (2011) deal with the struggle between religion and nobles as the church attempt to take power. The series delve into several topics near and dear to this blog, including noble houses, ancient secrets, religion, and elves.
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli offers a bleak insight into the minds of the wealthy and powerful of the renaissance, which rings depressingly true also today. It is a relatively easy read for its age.
Noble Houses in Roleplaying Games
The following includes affiliate links.
The two primary gaming resources I’ve used for this post is the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia and the Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign.
The old BECMI version of D&D had a perhaps surprisingly robust overview and system for strongholds, significant battles and politics considering its age and page count. Its no surprise the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991) remain a beloved version of the game.
The Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign adds backstories, kingdom, downtime, honor, and reputation, and war rules to the Pathfinder game. It’s all optional. It is perhaps overly detailed (in true Pathfinder fashion), yet is remain one of the most inspirational books in my Pathfinder library. The key bits are pulled directly from the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which probably is no accident. Alternatively, have a look at the leadership roles from the free online version.
Other sources include the noble background in the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons, as presented in the Player’s Handbook (2014), or on D&D Beyond.